In the Guardian journalist and writer Richard Gott examines the revived nationalist ideology of the British Empire as the world’s only “good empire” and how it is gaining ground in modern Britain.
“In his speech to the Conservative party conference this month, David Cameron looked back with Tory nostalgia to the days of empire: “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with armbands on,” he pointed out, suggesting that the shadow of health and safety did not hover over Britain’s imperial operations when the British were building “a great nation”.
Tony Blair had a similar vision. “I value and honour our history enormously,” he said in a speech in 1997, but he thought that Britain’s empire should be the cause of “neither apology nor hand-wringing”; it should be used to further the country’s global influence.
Half a century after the end of empire, politicians of all persuasions still feel called upon to remember our imperial past with respect. Yet few pause to notice that the descendants of the empire-builders and of their formerly subject peoples now share the small island whose inhabitants once sailed away to change the face of the world. Considerations of empire today must take account of two imperial traditions: that of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Traditionally, that first tradition has been conspicuous by its absence.
Cameron was right about the armbands. The creation of the British empire caused large portions of the global map to be tinted a rich vermilion, and the colour turned out to be peculiarly appropriate. Britain’s empire was established, and maintained for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence, brutality, conquest and war. Not a year went by without large numbers of its inhabitants being obliged to suffer for their involuntary participation in the colonial experience. Slavery, famine, prison, battle, murder, extermination – these were their various fates.”
Gott is the author of “Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt“, a new history which charts the story of those who spread the British Empire across the globe and those who fought it, a theme which has drawn the ire of the British political and media establishments.
“No colony in their empire gave the British more trouble than the island of Ireland. No subject people proved more rebellious than the Irish. From misty start to unending finish, Irish revolt against colonial rule has been the leitmotif that runs through the entire history of empire, causing problems in Ireland, in England itself, and in the most distant parts of the British globe. The British affected to ignore or forget the Irish dimension to their empire, yet the Irish were always present within it, and wherever they landed and established themselves, they never forgot where they had come from.
The British often perceived the Irish as “savages”, and they used Ireland as an experimental laboratory for the other parts of their overseas empire, as a place to ship out settlers from, as well as a territory to practise techniques of repression and control. Entire armies were recruited in Ireland, and officers learned their trade in its peat bogs and among its burning cottages. Some of the great names of British military history – from Wellington and Wolseley to Kitchener and Montgomery – were indelibly associated with Ireland. The particular tradition of armed policing, first patented in Ireland in the 1820s, became the established pattern until the empire’s final collapse.
For much of its early history, the British ruled their empire through terror. The colonies were run as a military dictatorship, often under martial law, and the majority of colonial governors were military officers. “Special” courts and courts martial were set up to deal with dissidents, and handed out rough and speedy injustice. Normal judicial procedures were replaced by rule through terror; resistance was crushed, rebellion suffocated. No historical or legal work deals with martial law. It means the absence of law, other than that decreed by a military governor.”
The entire article is well worth reading as indeed is his scrupulously researched, detailed and frequently shocking book. It is highly recommended.
- Ireland – The First And Last Of The Pax Britannica (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- Liberal Britain, Or Don’t Mention The War. The Irish One, That Is. (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Dad’s Army Panic Grips The British Left – Thanks To Alex Salmond (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- Ireland Unfree Shall Never Be At Peace? (ansionnachfionn.wordpress.com)
- Irish Pigs In The Daily Mail (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, By Richard Gott Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, By Jeremy Paxman (independent.co.uk)
- Book review: Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt (repeatingislands.com)
- The “Benign” British Empire? A View From Britain (politics.ie)
- a fantasy of empire (3quarksdaily.com)
- You: Let’s end the myths of Britain’s imperial past (guardian.co.uk)
- David Cameron revives the British Empire Medal (guardian.co.uk)